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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From Riches to Poverty Shaah Tovah 2010

From Riches to Poverty

Debbie Shapiro interviews Elizabeth Hoff* (a pseudonym)

The first time I met Elizabeth, she was a very fresh baalas teshuva preparing for her wedding. Several years later we acted together in a Nashei play: she was an Italian ruffian; I was an extremely proper – and snotty – English butler. When I first contacted her for this interview, she said, "Debbie, I wish I knew the end to our story. It's far from over; we're still in the middle of it and I have no idea where it's taking us."

Elizabeth: I grew up in suburban Philadelphia in an upper middle class Jewish home. We were Conservative and very Jewish orientated. I attended Hebrew school three times a week, including Shabbos morning. Although we really didn't learn much, I loved being with other Jewish kids. I felt that I belonged, that we were all part of one expanded family. I also sang in our synagogue's choir. We wore special robes and stood around the cantor. Looking back, I realize that the words that I sung touched something deep within me and impacted me on a neshama level.

One of our Hebrew school teachers was somewhat religious. He taught us about kashrus and about the need for purchasing food with kosher symbols. That was a real chiddush for me! At home we kept what I thought was kosher – we had separate dishes and didn't eat meat and milk together. But we'd order pizza from the local pizza store – without the pepperoni of course! After I learned that processed foods need a heksher I bean going grocery shopping with my mother every week to make sure that she only bought kosher food. But our Hebrew school teacher forgot to tell us that meat needs to be shechted and salted, so although we didn't eat pork, our meat was not kosher.

The Hebrew school principal was very into strengthening Jewish identity. Interestingly enough, although she was not frum, she influenced many people to become frum. One Sunday morning she showed the older classes the very graphic Holocaust documentary, "Genocide." I was totally unprepared for it. When I came home, I locked myself in my room and bawled for hours. I felt so connected to the people in the movie. It could have been me. The movie brought up deep existential questions, but I had no answers.

I had so many different feelings about my Judaism. On one had I was so proud of being Jewish, and felt so connected to the Jewish people. On the other hand, that connection could be defined as racist, and how could I possibly be a racist?

For my first year of college I attended the University of Maryland. The only Jewish things there were Hillel and the Jewish Defense League, which I didn't relate to at all! On the other hand there was tremendous diversity -- so many different types of people. I didn't want to limit myself and started questioning my Jewish identity. After all, if being Jewish was nothing more than going to shul a few times a year, then why be Jewish? Why not date that nice non-Jewish boy? But that movie, Genocide, niggled at the back of my mind. Did six million Jews die so that I could lose myself to the American dream?

For my second year of college I transferred to SUNY at Binghamton.  I made a lot of Jewish friends. Friday nights we'd first attend services at the local Chabad House and then go to the disco. Eventually I realized that this was hypocritical and became shomer Shabbos.

The following year I attended Hebrew University's junior year abroad. That summer, I flew to Israel for the pre-semester ulpan. During the break between ulpan and the beginning of classes, I traveled to Tsfas with a group of friends and spent Shabbos in Ascent.

Debbie: Ascent is a youth hostel and kiruv center located in the Tsfas' picturesque Old city. They offer Jewish students inexpensive and sometimes free tours and hikes, exciting seminars and Shabbos hospitality – as well as a taste of Torah-true Judaism.

Elizabeth: I met my future husband that Shabbos. He was learning in a very Zionistic English language yeshiva. We traveled back to Jerusalem together and within three weeks we realized that we wanted to get married. Although I spent that year studying at Hebrew University, taking all the required courses and doing everything I was supposed to, I tried to spend as much time as possible in a yeshiva environment.

We were married in June. Our wedding took place in Jerusalem. I really fought for that; I wanted a frum yeshiva wedding, something that would have been impossible in America. We moved into a basement apartment in Efrat, a suburb of Jerusalem. My husband was studying in his yeshiva's two year semicha program. But after a while he realized that he'd need a lot more than two years of learning before he could go out to do kiruv and transferred to a Chareidi kollel in Ramot.

We were in Ramot for eight and a half years. It was a time of tremendous personal growth. I was learning the fine nuances of the Chareidi world – and in the process I kept on changing my wardrobe! It was challenging to adapt to a frum life style. Pregnancy, birth, raising children; I was totally unprepared for it. It was completely beyond my former frame of reference.

We were much younger than most of the families in Ramot. Yes, they opened up their homes and hearts for us, but I never really felt that I fit in, that I was a part of the crowd. I wanted to be with people my own age, people that I could relate to. So we moved to the much younger community of Ramat Beit Shemesh.

We were millionaires – literally -- and as strange as this might sound, that was one reason why we felt out of place in Ramot, where so many of the families were struggling just to put food on the table. Of course we didn't show off our wealth, but with our beautiful five room apartment, a family sized station wagon and plenty of household help we were obviously not poor. Yet our furniture was very simple since, as a newlywed I had been very idealistic and shunned materialism. So instead buying furniture that I liked, I bought the cheapest thing we could find!

We purchased a beautiful house in Beit Shemesh and started renovating it. Meanwhile, we rented a four bedroom apartment around the corner from our dream-house. I spent hours agonizing over details such as faucets and tiling, and had even hired an exclusive (i.e. expensive) French interior designer to make sure that the house would be absolutely perfect. She made sure that everything I purchased was in excellent taste, which can be translated to top dollars. But it didn't matter. We had plenty of money in the bank; the barrel was endless.

But then something terrible happened. Our financial advisor stole – yes, stole! – our entire fortune. We were left with nothing. At the time, however, we erroneously assumed that he had run off with "just" a large chunk of our millions and that we were still rich, although not fabulously wealthy! I remember going shopping with my interior designer a few days after we discovered what had happened. We bought all sorts of expensive gadgets for the kitchen, and as the cashier rang them up, I kept on hoping that our assumption was correct and that we'd be able to pay for these luxuries.

Then, as we felt our world caving in around us, we had a fire. My children had clipped one those clip-on lights to a cardboard box in their bedroom, and left it on all night. After they had left for school (thank G-d!) I entered their room and found it engulfed in flames. I ran out– forgetting to close the door after me -  and raced into the kitchen to phone the fire department. By the time they arrived there was nothing left of my children's room, and the entire house was covered with gritty soot. It was impossible for us to stay there.  

One of our neighbors moved into her parents' house for the week so that we could stay in her apartment. Meanwhile, the neighbors helped me wash everything – and I mean everything – that we owned and clean up the huge mess. I was so traumatized by the sequence of events that in my memory everything is a blur, a living nightmare.

Thank G-d my grandfather was kind enough to send us enough money to pay the final payment on our new house, and we were able to move in. It was beautiful. I loved the furniture that I had so carefully chosen and the kitchen was beautiful, absolutely stunning.

But my euphoria was really just a balloon, an illusion that would quickly dissipate. We knew that the financial advisor had walked off with the lion's chunk of our fortune, but we still thought there was something left. Six months later we discovered that everything had been stolen.

While under the assumption that we still had a now small fortune at our disposal, my husband had fulfilled his dream and opened a kollel. But now that all the money was gone, he was unable to pay the averichim. Instead of being the wealthy ones, the ones who were constantly contributing to the community, we found ourselves wondering how we're going to pay our bills.

We both needed to find a job. My husband suggested that perhaps this was Hashem's way of pushing us into kiruv, so we started looking for a kiruv position.

We ended up selling everything we owned and moving to South America, where my husband was offered a position teaching the ninth grade gemara class.  It ended up being a disaster. We had a totally different hashakafa from that of the school. Everyone was different from us and we felt completely alone. And then, after just two weeks of teaching, my husband was fired. He was forcing the boys to think and to ask questions, but that's not what the school wanted. The boys were minimally frum, and the school was not interested in changing that. 

We were devastated! Our world was crumbling around us. But my baby was due shortly and I couldn't travel. In the end I gave birth there, and since according to the contract the school was obligated to pay us for the full year, we decided to stay. My husband got involved with kashrus, supervising the chalav Yisrael and the slaughtering house. We became close to the forty or so Chareidi families that were living there. When the rav told us that he was opening a kollel, we seriously considered remaining for another year. But that would mean sending our children to another country for school, and I wasn't willing to do that. 

So we moved to Lakewood, New Jersey. We rented a town house in a nice suburban area, walking distance from a shopping center and park. But I was miserable there. Life in Lakewood is extremely busy. Most people work full time, which is not conducive to creating friendships! In addition, I was the new one in town; everyone seemed to know everyone else from camp or Bais Yaakov, but I knew nobody. I was the odd one out, and despite being surrounded by a thriving community, I felt isolated. The children, however, blossomed. They loved their school and being part of something bigger than themselves, instead of being different, the frum kids.

Meanwhile, however, we had no income. We had sold our house in Beit Shemesh and had put the money in bank to purchase another house. Instead, we were constantly nibbling away at it. I felt physically sick each time I went to the bank to withdraw money from our savings. If we weren't careful, we'd soon be left with nothing.

So we started a real estate business. At first we were really successful. But then, just as we were beginning to stand on our own two feet, the bottom dropped out with the mortgage crisis. Again, we were left without a parnassa and had to continue dipping into our savings to keep our heads above water.

It took us three years to deplete it completely. My husband opened a business in which he gave Torah classes over the telephone. But it didn't bring in much money and we were dirt poor. Our car was repossessed. Image, me, the wealthy one, having her car repossessed? I woke up one morning and discovered that it was missing. It was only when we called the police that we discovered why. I was in a state of shock – these things happen in storybooks, but not in real life – and phoned a close friend. Instead of empathizing with me, she responded, "That's wonderful!" A little dazed at her reaction, I asked her why. "Now it won't be so difficult for you to return to Israel!" was her response.

That's when we decided to return to Israel. I needed a support system and I knew I'd find it with my friends. And besides, we were poor – poor!— and at least in Israel we wouldn't be so different from everyone else! In addition, my husband's work was over the telephone, which meant that he could continue doing it from Israel. So we contacted Nefesh B'nefesh and made arrangements to return.

My children were accepted into top notch schools, and are doing great. Yes, we're still facing big challenges in the parnassah ring, but at least here we feel like one of the crowd. I've started working; I do translations, and have considered doing telephone sales in American hours. My husband studies in a Kollel and teaches his groups over the telephone.

Debbie: I am sure that there are many wealthy people would gladly forgo their riches to have children who are "doing great." What a bracha! When I was growing up, we were extremely poor. My father really struggled to put macaroni and cheese on the table! Yet, he'd always tell us, and anyone else that was willing to listen -- that he was a multi-millionaire. After all, each kid is worth more than a million, and there were six of us!

Where do I see myself going from here? I don't want to go anywhere! I've already gone to too many places. At this point in my life, I want stability, but that's not happening. We're renting, and we know that we'll have to move again soon. And we're still having lots of problems paying our monthly bills. Too many times we've had to eat dinner by candlelight because the electricity was turned off.

I'm really working on my emuna and bitachon. I realize now that had I remained in Ramat Beit Shemesh with my fancy furniture and millions in the bank, I would never have grown in the ways that I did. But I have no frame of reference, no prior experience with poverty. It's a lifestyle that I never dreamed of. I often go to sleep at night wondering how I'll have money for the children's bus pass the following morning. In Ramot, I had been the wealthy one, embarrassed that I didn't have to face such financial difficulties. Today, I'm on the opposite side of the fence, and it's not easy.

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